More Auto and Car Insurance Fraud Cases In Bad Economy

Photo: The faltering economy is to blame for a rise in auto insurance fraud cases nationwide, according to investigators who tell ABCNews.com that never before have they seen car owners so desperate to get rid of their cars

Across the country, desperate Americans are lighting their own cars on fire when they can no longer afford the payments. Then they report the vehicles stolen and try to collect the insurance money.

So many cars are getting lit up in Las Vegas that the city's Police Auto Theft Unit patrols the roads for burned out cars.

"The driving factor right now is the economy. It really is," said Sgt. Will Hutchings of the LVPD Auto Theft Unit.

VIDEO: More Auto and Car Insurance Fraud Cases In Bad Economy
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During this past year, on one stretch alone, police say they've found the charred hulks of at least 70 torched cars. Their police helicopter finds other abandoned vehicles hidden in crevices and on peaks in the middle of the desert. Police said since the drive to desolate sections of the desert is a one-way mission over harsh terrain, the bottoms of these vehicles are usually torn out before the burn even begins.

Some of these car arsons have been caught on tape. Police said the tapes demonstrate the immense danger of this crime.

"Take the hit on your credit or whatever, don't commit this crime. What you're risking in injury far outweighs anything you'll gain financially," said Lt. Robert Duvall, head of the LVPD Auto Theft Unit.

Police said a Nevada man, Raidel Vega, suffered secoond and third degree burns on his arm and hand when he burned his girlfriend's car when she wanted out of her car payments.

Vega was charged with seven felonies including arson and insurance fraud. He's currently in jail and back in court next month.

But it's not just Nevada that seeing the problem.

For Modesto, Calif., resident Dennis Bicek, car payments on his Infiniti G35 became such a burden that police allege he hired a man to steal and burn the vehicle to collect the insurance. Bicek claimed to police that his car had been stolen from a local golf course.

"The primary motive was for economic means," said Sgt. Brian Findlen, the public information officer at the Modesto Police Department. "This individual found that he could no longer afford the vehicle he had purchased and made the choice to commit a criminal act to ease the financial burden."

Bicek's car was eventually located nearby by firefighters who found the burned-out hulk. Bicek and the two men he allegedly hired to do the job face charges of arson and conspiracy to commit arson.

Messages left at Bicek's home by ABCNews.com were not immediately returned.

According to James Quiggle, the spokesman for The Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, such cases have been on the rise since the economic recession began in December 2007.

"A growing number of stressed-out consumers around the U.S. are ditching unwanted vehicles to try and stop them from falling off a financial cliff in the recession," said Quiggle.

According to the Insurance Research Council, an organization that does research on behalf of the insurance industry, automobile insurance fraud added between $4.8 billion and $6.8 billion to auto claim payments in 2007, the most recent year data was compiled.

National statistics on the number of auto fraud cases that occur are not available, said Quiggle, who says that because each insurance company maintains their own statistics on fraudulent claims -- and because they each consider different acts to be fraudulent -- no "omnibus of data" exists.

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